The marchers in this morning’s parade are assembling on a stretch of road from the elementary school to the VFW. Vehicles, trailers, horses being soothed by their riders, and plenty of flags. Men in their 20s, men in their 90s, gathered.
I’m in a military town so I know less about any civilian military gap. Even growing up where soldiers were not a daily sight, most everyone through their past or through their relatives, were affected by war.
It seems way too simple to assume that those who don’t serve don’t understand the warriors, just as it’s too simple to assume that everyone who has worn the uniform does understand sacrifice. We have courageous warriors, cowards, and various shades of grey in between – in both cultures.
Perhaps the gap is in those who’ve grown from their experience and those who’ve been hardened by it. Something Whitman saw in four years of serving as a civilian volunteer during the Civil War. His writing during this time began with the broadest patriotic calls to ‘do one’s duty’ and ended with a narrow focus, altered by the experience of tending the wounded, burying the dead, and family who became institutionalized from what was then called ‘shell-shock.’
His poem ‘Reconciliation’ in a few short lines travels this path from abstract patriotism to human empathy – a journey many of us are still trying to complete:
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this solid world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin- I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the
The word ‘beautiful’ can only be expressed from great distance has he imagines invisible forces of Death and Night doing repairs. This is unsatisfactory when faced with a human face up close.
Reconciliation becomes the job of each of us, not only to reach out to the family member but to see the humanity in our enemy, who was also doing his patriotic duty, who also dreamed of returning to his family.
The people we see today, the marchers and those gathered roadside, probably did not think about the abstractions politicians use to drum up support for war. In fact, realizing the thoughts run from returning to family, to not losing a battle buddy, to filling the long moments of boredom between action – it’s a wonder anyone is inspired by abstract talk at all.
Today is a day of reconciliation. I’m thinking about the handful I know didn’t make it back but also about an Iraqi Lieutenant and Captain who each wanted to help set up a hospital with western equipment that would last long after the war, and an advisor who had blind faith his country would be safe for him and his family even though he had supported the Americans, and I’m thinking of one hundred twenty thousand I did not meet whose lives were ended, who are not remembered in American parades, who are ‘divine as myself.’